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Gabor Somorjai Lauded For Research Accomplishments

Awards: Lucrative prize from Spanish banking group recognizes chemist's contributions to surface science and catalysis

by Mitch Jacoby
January 31, 2011

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

A banking group in Spain has awarded nearly $550,000 to University of California, Berkeley, chemistry professor Gabor A. Somorjai "for his pioneering experimental and conceptual contributions to the understanding of surface chemistry and catalysis at a microscopic and molecular level."

The prize is the 2010 Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences given out by the science-promoting arm of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA).

Somorjai, who is also a faculty senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says, "I'm truly honored to be recognized this way, adding that much of the credit for his research accomplishments goes to his LBNL and Berkeley colleagues, whose creativity "has fostered an atmosphere of scientific excellence."

For more than 40 years, Somorjai has been uncovering subtle and long-hidden physical and chemical details of solid surfaces and of thin layers of molecules that form an interface with such surfaces. By developing novel surface-science instruments and methods for using them, he and his research group have helped drive understanding of surface-mediated chemical reactivity to the atomic level.

This broad collection of research techniques has been used to elucidate chemical reaction pathways that underlie surface catalysis. The methods have also led to more efficient and more selective catalysts for fuel production and pollution abatement; the advancement of microelectronics and data-storage technologies; and basic understanding of chemical processes occurring on biological surfaces.

"This honor is quite prestigious and it is very befitting that it be given to Somorjai, an outstanding and deserving awardee," says Harvard University chemistry professor Hongkun Park, a member of the prize-awarding jury. Park adds that Somorjai's contributions to surface chemistry are crucially important to many pressing technical issues of global importance including energy production and conversion, clean water, and green chemistry.

This year marks just the third time that BBVA is recognizing scientists with its Frontiers of Knowledge Awards. In addition to the basic sciences category, which includes physics, chemistry, and mathematics, the foundation also honors researchers for work in information and communication technologies and climate change.

Previous winners in the basic sciences category include, in 2009, Stanford University chemist Richard N. Zare and University of Maryland physicist Michael E. Fisher; and in 2008, physicists Ignacio Cirac of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and Peter Zoller of the University of Innsbruck, Austria.



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